What almost losing my son taught me about family

When a mum opens a bedroom door to find her son having a seizure, the journey they then take shows what makes a family.

Almost losing a son - Heather Osterman-Davis - DO NOT USE
Heather with her husband, Mitch and children Owen and Nora [Photo courtesy of Heather Osterman-Davis]

I do not know why I get up to check on Owen. Later Chris will say it was a mother’s intuition, that on some subconscious level I felt him leave me a little and I will hold onto this because it is better than thinking he was sitting there in distress.

I open his door, balancing my eight-month-old daughter, Nora, on one hip. The first thing I notice is the smell. The room is rancid, bitter. That morning I had noticed that his bedding was in desperate need of a wash. I was feeling embarrassed because Alex, my once-a-week babysitter, was coming and would probably think it pathetic that I could not manage to keep his sheets clean. Though I know I should not worry about her judging me, I do. When I open Owen’s door I think, “God, they really do smell. How could they have gotten that bad?”

It was not the blankets.

I call 911

I see the vomit first, cascading from his gaping mouth down his chest like a frozen waterfall, ending in a muddy brown pool on his sheet. Later I will picture it spread across the floor as if a sewer pipe had exploded, which is not possible but it felt like it was everywhere.

Then there is the rest of Owen, his eyes are rolled back into his head, a thin sliver of grey-blue peering out from an expanse of white. His arms curl tightly into claws, twitching slowly next to his chest as his head spasms back and forth like a sluggish metronome – his lower body incongruously limp.

I think my brain must have short-circuited because the image is so surreal, no part of this reconciles with the healthy child who went down for his nap two hours before.

I miraculously set Nora down on the floor without dropping her and scoop Owen into my arms, his 33lbs (15kg) a dead weight. I wail his name again and again as if it could change things. My voice increases in volume, desperate to get through, but it is pointless, like yelling, “Stop thief!” in a crowd where nobody speaks your language.

There is a strangled whistle as air struggles through his windpipe, fighting against the detritus of his lunch, rejected chunks of bright orange carrots coated in a thick smear of hummus. His breath is sour against my face, and I suck in that beautiful rotten breath like hope because it means at least he is alive.

Frantic, I carry him into the living room and lay his body onto the tan and cream carpet. This is my fault. He called out “Momma, Momma,” at the start of his nap, his soft sweet voice unanswered because I wanted him to fall asleep. Then later there was a coughing fit but I cannot remember how much later. Was it five minutes? 10? 30? Why did I wait so long to check on him? How long has he been like this? Was he scared? Waiting? Is there brain damage? His body is so still, prostrate in front of the television, like an offering. But how can you offer up what you want back? My beautiful boy.

He blew kisses at his first birthday party after everyone sang; he cries when he sees people on the news who are distressed; he convinces strangers outside restaurants to “dance-break” with him on the dirty city sidewalk; he takes deep breaths to calm himself down when he is angry.

Now, his breathing is laboured, like end-stage emphysema. When I was a child I would hold my breath as we drove by cemeteries because I did not want to steal breath from the dead, my chest constricting as my brain fought against my body’s impulse to inhale. The body always won, my mouth opening with a gasp, sucking in oxygen as if I had just been tossed up from the sea. I could win that battle now if it would help. I would claw one of my lungs from my body and place it in his chest if I could.

I call 911. I have never called 911.

“Hello, what is your emergency?”

I tell her as best as I can, struggling to modulate my voice from rising to a frenzied shriek.

“Ma’am, try to stay calm?”

Stay calm?

“Don’t shout at him.”

Too late. Too late. All I have been doing is shouting.

“Make sure there is nothing in his mouth.”

I did that. I swept his mouth with my index finger, a technique remembered from some long ago CPR class.

“Don’t try to stop the seizure, it will pass.”

But nothing is passing. He is not waking up. How do I wake him up? Why are you not telling me anything useful?

His smooth, naked legs dangle from his size 6 nappy, his torso clad only in a short yellow T-shirt, brand new that morning. He had opened the package of clothes in awe at all the new things, holding them up incredulously saying, “For me? For me?”

Now, his T-shirt is ruined, vomit-stained, like a mocking Rorschach test. I have always had visions of being a healer. Now is the time, if ever. I touch his face, my palm cupping his soft cheek, and will his body to mend.

A swell of adrenaline

I do not know what to do with Nora, who is wailing in the bedroom as if I left her on a bed of hot coals. I call two friends who are not at home, then desperate, call a downstairs neighbour who has a daughter one day younger than mine. We have hung out a grand total of three times but she agrees to come up instantly. Next I call my husband, Mitch. I do not want to tell him what is happening. It is 4:30 on a Friday and he has to drive from White Plains to Manhattan in rush hour traffic. I think if he knows what is happening he will kill himself or someone else trying to get home faster.

“Can you leave work right now?”


“Get in your car and come home.”

He agrees without asking a single question. Later some people ask how I had the wherewithal to withhold information from him, how I did not just scream at him in panic, telling him everything.

Supposedly the phenomenon of seeing your life flash before your eyes in catastrophic moments is caused by a massive swell of adrenaline, speeding up your brain like cocaine or time-lapse photography and that is how I felt at first. I was super-human, thinking, processing and acting in less time than it would usually take to scratch my nose.

If he had called me I would have forced him to tell me, reaching my hands like tentacles through the phone grasping around his neck, shaking him until he confessed. But I think that Mitch and I just knew each other deeply enough that I sensed that he needed to not know and he trusted my motivations for not telling.

Electric tug

I first met Mitch at a Thanksgiving party in 2006, though then he was going by Michelle, a butch lesbian visiting from Arizona, though a New Yorker by birth and most of her life. She was there with an ex-girlfriend having bought tickets for the visit before they broke up. I had just ended a two-year relationship with a woman I thought was “the one” and was trying to avoid a family holiday where two of my three siblings would be attending with their new spouses, likely glowing with connubial bliss. We had a great conversation while smoking on a fire escape away from the noise of the Orphan Thanksgiving. I cannot even recall what we spoke about but remember feeling that electric tug of two body’s ions reaching out to each other, wanting a bond. She asked me if I had plans for the weekend and I told her I had none. For a moment I thought she was asking me out, but found out later that she had been worried about my being alone and reached out to some mutual friends to make sure I was not.

A year later I was co-hosting a New Year’s Eve party at my friend Jesse’s apartment in Brooklyn. I had just gone through another break-up, this time with a guy who might have married me because we were “compatible enough”. I had tried hard to be in love but failed. I was uninspired and restless. I was not looking for “compatible enough”. I wanted fireworks, or at least a box of sparklers. I joked to my friend Sarah that my criteria had been whittled down to wanting someone who could carry on an intelligent conversation, had a sense of humor, desire to travel, and was spiritual enough to know who Rumi or Hafiz was. But on New Year’s Eve, I just wanted a drunken distraction.

Almost losing a son - Heather Osterman-Davis - DO NOT USE
Heather and Mitch at a Beyonce concert in New York City [Photo courtesy of Heather Osterman-Davis]

I showed up early to Jesse’s house, toting a suitcase filled with ingredients for pad Thai and summer rolls, homemade espresso ice-cream and two outfit changes. Mitch was the only one there. I knew from Jesse that he was now identifying as male, though not yet having begun the course of testosterone and surgeries that would change his outside to match his heart. He was sitting in a wooden chair by the kitchen window, in an ill-fitting tan suit, reading Eat, Pray, Love. He looked up briefly to say hello but continued to read as I finished cooking and changed into my little black party dress and red heels, seemingly more interested in the comparison of Italian gelatos than my presence. But somewhere things shifted and an hour shy of midnight, three glasses into a bottle of white wine and two hours into a conversation that ranged from political disobedience to camel rides across the Sahara, Mitch casually asked, “Have you read any Rumi or Hafiz?”

Now, six years later, here we are with two miraculous kids in a life neither of us predicted. I wonder if he knows we might be losing one as he battles the Cross County Parkway coming home to us.

‘No shoes on the carpet!’

The firemen arrive without warning, charging through the door, heavy in their dark jackets, boots and hats. I exhale. I am not in charge of my son’s survival any more. They traipse in, darkening my carpet with the soot and dirt of other people’s tragedies and I have a moment of insanity where I want to shout Owen’s greeting to all house guests, “No shoes on the carpet! No shoes on the carpet!”

They circle my son like school children around a playground fight, banishing me to the periphery. They slice the yellow T-shirt off his body; place an oxygen mask on his face. I keep asking if he will be okay and no one gives me an answer. Instead they pepper me with questions.

“Are there prescription medicines in the house?”

“Of course.”

“Did he take anything?”

“I don’t know. No, no he couldn’t have.”

“Did he have a fever?”


“What might he have taken?”

“Nothing, he couldn’t have taken anything. He was with me the whole time.”

I try to peer over the circle of firemen around my son.

“The irony,” I tell them, “is that this is his dream to have so many firemen in his house at the same time. He wears his fireman costume almost every day.”

“We know,” one of them says. “He waved to our truck this morning. He always waves to us.”

I picture him this morning with his red hat and yellow boots, his fireman jacket stretched tight over his puffy winter coat making him look more like a fire hydrant than a potential hero. I lose it again.

The only female firefighter moves to my side. She calls me “Mum” and tells me what to pack for the hospital. One moment I am calm, methodically gathering the things I need and the next I am close to sobbing in her arms. Embarrassed, I feel the need to comment on my hysteria like footnotes or a disclaimer. She touches my shoulder and tells me I did everything right. I ask her if that is what she is supposed to say.

Almost losing a son - Heather Osterman-Davis - DO NOT USE
Owen and Nora playing in a box [Photo courtesy of Heather Osterman-Davis]

My neighbour, Rose, comes through the open door and after a horror-stricken look at the living room tableau immediately goes into the other room to rescue Nora.

Everyone seems worried Owen has not come out of the seizure but they keep saying his oxygen saturation is good – 90 percent. I hold on to the number like it is the key to heaven. The ambulance arrives and after more assessment and commotion, they ask if I am ready to go. I tell them I am and start to put on my baby carrier to hold Nora and the EMT shakes his head, pointing to my neighbour.

“Can you leave the baby with her?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Can I leave her with you?”

She says yes, though of course how could she not? I am sure she is already itching to run downstairs and touch her own daughter, that parental need for assurance, the way people are compelled to hug their children upon hearing of others lost in disasters. But I cannot linger too long on her face because there is a barely hidden horror there that forces me to face that this is really happening. I try to give her all the information she will need but I am having trouble being coherent.

“Does Nora take a bottle?”

“No, but there’s some breast milk in the fridge.”

“Are there keys? Should I lock the door?”

“Leave it open.”

“I called my mum, she should be here soon. An hour? Maybe two?”

“Don’t worry.”

I enfold Nora in my arms until she stops crying and whisper, “I’m sorry, love,” before painfully returning her to Rose’s arms.

One EMT and me

Owen is strapped to an adult-sized stretcher, naked except for his nappy, his three-foot body swallowed by the expanse of white sheets, making him look even more vulnerable than before.

Something in me shifts as we leave the privacy of our apartment, stepping into the public space, down the hallway, into the elevator, through the lobby and finally out the door into the air. The sunlight is disorienting; it feels like too much time has passed to still be day.

A fire engine is parked in front of our building, lights blazing, and I think, “This is for us, we are the people this is for.” The ambulance is parked around the corner in front of Morandi, an expensive Italian restaurant populated with tall, thin people clad in designer dresses and suits. I do not want to walk in front of them, be their quick conversation piece over wine, fried artichokes and burratta, the live picture that catches in people’s throats on the evening news, a small boy, helpless, followed by a weeping mother. Except I am no longer weeping. I am too stunned to weep.

I climb into the ambulance and they direct me to the back wall, where I am strapped into a jump seat. It feels off. Based on every hospital show I have ever seen there should be a team of people surrounding him, fighting for him but there is only one too-young EMT (emergency medical technician) and me, held hostage by a seat belt, too far away to hold his hand.

In a way the distance releases me and I bury myself in my mobile phone. I post online to a mum’s group I have been a part of since I was trying to get pregnant with Owen, knowing they will flood me with messages of hope and love I will let cover me. Over the next week I will read each of their responses multiple times and the power of knowing they are all out there praying will hold me up, though I do not even know if I believe in prayer. I have only met a handful of them in real life but we have communicated daily for years, making them that odd combination of intensely intimate and stranger which makes it easier to be vulnerable.

Summer solstice

When I was in my first trimester with Owen and before we were telling people, Mitch and I were driving back from a weekend with friends at the Jersey Shore. We stopped at a diner to get some breakfast. I was feeling sick and asked Mitch to get me some saltines and seltzer while I went to the bathroom. When I came back he said, “The waitress thinks you’re hungover. Obviously I didn’t say anything.”

“You should have told her,” I say. “Telling strangers is amazing; they have nothing but goodwill and there’s no risk because you’ll never see them again. Watch.”

I take a grateful sip of seltzer and turn to the waitress. “Thanks. I have a touch of morning sickness.”

Her face lights up as if we just gave her a $100 tip and she congratulates us a dozen times before we leave, cradling our to-go boxes, laden with greasy tater tots and egg sandwiches.

“See,” I say. “Love, no strings attached.”

Almost losing a son - Heather Osterman-Davis - DO NOT USE
Heather and Mitch at their wedding in 2009 [Photo courtesy of Heather Osterman-Davis]

When I first got together with Mitch he told me he wanted to be a good uncle to his nephew but parenthood was not for him. On our third date he asked me how I saw my life in 10 years and I told him, omitting anything about kids. The next morning I nervously came clean.

“When you asked me how I pictured my life in a few years, I left something out.”

“What?” he asked, running a finger across my jawline.

“I want kids,” I say. “I really want kids. And you kind of mentioned you didn’t.”

“Before I met you,” he says, “I was going to be a monk. I couldn’t conceptualise a future with anyone, let alone one with children in it. It’s not that I don’t want kids, I just never saw a life where it was possible.”

A month later he applied to graduate school in New York, two months later he drove cross-country, showing up at my door one Friday evening with an old Honda CRV jammed with his belongings and plans to couch surf until he could get student housing. He never left.

One month after that, we flew to San Francisco where Mitch had “top surgery” or a double mastectomy. The surgery was intense. I remember standing over him before he went into surgery, his body marked up by black marker indicating where they would cut and watching fear and exhilaration flit across his face. I did not personally understand his desire to alter his body. I love being female with a passion, but I could see his overwhelming need to have his outer body match his inner self, this sloughing of an unwelcome, uncomfortable costume. When he came out of surgery, even bandaged and weak he already seemed more whole.

A few days into his recovery, we shopped for an engagement ring in Union Square while he was still slightly high on Vicodin and I joked I would get a better ring out of it. We got engaged that June on the summer solstice and a year later we were married at the southern tip of Manhattan where we danced to Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off as our friends and family applauded.

Nine months after that, when Mitch was in his second year of grad school, I started to make guttural pterodactyl noises when talking about babies. I could feel the soul of my future child floating anxiously around the universe, searching for me and that need to have it rooted into my body could only be expressed in rasping squawks. He wanted to wait until he was out of school and employed. I convinced him it took people years to get pregnant even when going about it naturally, so given our “extenuating circumstances”, not to mention the fact that I was 35, we could have a challenge. We compromised by waiting until graduation.

My biological clock

Years before I met Mitch, my friend Chris and I tossed around the possibility of having a kid together on the off-chance that we each ended up alone. So when it came time to choose a donor he was my obvious choice. He was smart, funny, communicated like he had a degree in it, which he kind of did. He wanted to be known in the child’s life but had no expectations of being seen as a parent, of being involved in decision making or day-to-day routines, made easier by the fact that he lived across the country in San Francisco with his husband, David. We had been through enough in life so far that I trusted him in a way I did not trust most people.

Mitch had other ideas, mostly involving using his brother. To say I was reluctant would have given me more credit than I deserved.

“It’s not ideal,” Mitch said, “but it would be genetically part of me. I hate that it can’t be.”

“But I’m not even sure your brother and you share the same DNA,” I say.

“That’s not funny,” Mitch said, which is fair.

I understood that this was not just about how close or far our donor’s DNA was from Mitch’s. For him, not being able to biologically father our children was wrapped up in a deeper sense of self and identity. It was a signifier that no matter what surgeries or hormones he took he would never be the exact man he wanted to be. Nature had robbed him of that.

I knew I was a hypocrite because I was desperate to grow this baby in my body, give it my breath, my blood, my DNA. My biological clock crescendoed to a roar. But even so, I did not just want Mitch to give in, I wanted him to agree.

In the end, Mitch grew to believe that Chris was the right choice too, and after a lot of planning we set a date and did the insemination at home.

A little speck of cellular matter

We found out we were pregnant on Father’s Day of 2010. I knew right away it was a boy. I could feel him inside of me, the little speck of cellular matter that would grow into Owen. When we called to tell Chris he said he had expected to have an emotional reaction but he was thrown by the force of it. For the next nine months as he grew in my stomach, fragile, his wellbeing out of our control we would hold him, already loved, in our hearts.

Near the end of my pregnancy with Owen I went for weekly sessions where they monitored his movement and heartbeat. I would sit in a room, bands and sensors cinched around my voluminous belly, listening to the sound of his heartbeat for 20 minutes. The appointments were simultaneously tedious and mind-blowing. Most of pregnancy is blind faith that there is actually a being growing inside you but there in those sessions was proof of life. Once, I called Chris, put the phone on speaker and recorded a whole minute of Owen’s heartbeat on his voicemail. I did not even know if Chris would know what it was, but he did, saving it and playing it again and again.

And now just six days short of his third birthday Owen is once again fragile, his wellbeing out of our control, a heartbeat on a monitor, tied to an IV instead of my umbilical cord. And we have only faith that he will emerge whole on the other side.

Almost losing a son - Heather Osterman-Davis - DO NOT USE
Chris meeting Owen for the first time in August 2011 [Photo courtesy of Heather Osterman-Davis]

‘Prayers needed in New York’

I do not even think to ask the ambulance where we are going, do not speak to the EMT the whole ride, cannot look at Owen. We pull into the hospital and I follow Owen through the crowded emergency room; people move out of the way like we are Moses. No one should be in the emergency room with a child who will not open his eyes. It feels like everyone is watching me, pitying me.

We share a cordoned-off section with another patient, an ancient Latina. Her face is plump with deep furrows of age or sickness creating a sad map of canyons on it. Every time she moans, a man I assume to be her son, leans in, whispering to her in Spanish. Another man joins them who seems to be deaf. I watch them signing together by her bedside. I have to charge my phone and the outlet is on their side of the room. I sidle over, keeping my eyes down and do not ask permission though I could do so in either Spanish or Sign Language. Maybe I just do not want to acknowledge anyone else’s grief because it will amplify mine.

I text Chris and tell him that Owen is in the hospital. I should not text things like this but I do not know what else to do. I ask him if there is any history of seizures in his family. Medical people come in, take x-rays, scans, vitals. Their main job seems to be avoiding my questions. Eventually they come back and say they found an arachnoid cyst in his brain. I do not think I can stand. Much later another doctor will clarify that it is a benign type of cyst, that if you x-rayed 10 random people walking down the street five of them might have one. I think they should have led with that.

“When will he wake up?” I ask. They tell me they do not know and explain that very often after seizures people will sleep for hours and because they have given him large doses of Dilantin, an incredibly strong sedative and anti-seizure drug, he is likely to sleep even longer.

Chris texts back.

Not that I know of. Is everything okay?

Are you okay to talk? I wasn’t sure if you would want me to call.

I will be on a plane in a minute if you need me.

At some point I call and try to explain what is happening but I do not remember our conversation. Later I learn that shortly after Chris called his good friend Sally in Texas, sobbing and left a hysterical, mostly unintelligible message about “prayers needed in New York right away”. The image of him incoherent on the phone constricts my heart in an unexpected way. We are still navigating the dimensions of our new type of family and sometimes it is hard to connect across the country in different time zones, but in that call love vibrates unmistakably.

Machines beeping

I stand next to Owen’s hospital bed. I hold his hand and whisper in his ear.

“Owen, I love you, you’re so strong, so strong. Hang in there baby, everything’s going to be fine. You’re such a brave, wonderful boy.” Are there not studies that people in comas can hear people talking to them? It must work in cases like this, too. I tell him again and again how brave he is, about all the firemen that were there to help him, about the ambulance and the fire truck. And when my voice breaks, lilting towards tears, I walk away.

My sister arrives first, fresh from her own hospital job, asking intelligent questions. Her assuredness and capability calms me. She seems to know just what to ask the doctors, how to talk to the nurses. I rock against her small frame.

“What if I’ve lost him? What if I waited too long? My baby, my baby.” This has become my litany.

Almost losing a son - Heather Osterman-Davis - DO NOT USE
Mitch and the kids at a Father’s Day lunch [Photo courtesy of Heather Osterman-Davis]

When I think Mitch is close enough, I call him again. He answers on the first ring. I ask him if he is ready to hear more information and when he says yes I tell him where we are so he can reroute. When he gets to the hospital he cannot find a parking spot and almost leaves the car in the middle of 2nd Avenue with the keys in the ignition, figuring someone can move it or steal it. But eventually he finds an open metre and finds us and we are hugging and I am unglued, hyperventilating, trying to tell him everything.

I cannot watch his face take Owen in, his nose and lips sealed off by a plastic oxygen mask, body limp, tubes travelling from his small plump arm to an IV, and machines everywhere, beeping and monitoring.

Mitch darts back and forth between Owen, me and the doctors like a frantic moth, drawn towards one light source, then another, desperately trying to find one that might help him orient himself to his surroundings.

My father and stepmother come next. When my stepmother hugs me, I collapse against her, wondering how logistics have put her here in a hospital comforting me again while my own mother takes care of my other child.

The receiving side of motherhood

Eight months earlier, my daughter Nora was born after a ferociously fast labour that ended in a three-hour C-section that saved her life and possibly mine. I narrowly avoided a hysterectomy but was up and walking the next day, determined to keep moving because the doctors told me it would help me heal. I paced the hallway with the plodding determination of a crippled elephant but I did not heal. Instead, I developed deep vein thrombosis, a pulmonary embolism and finally a headache that convinced me I was going to die. The doctors consulted and decided if the headache was not gone by morning they would scan my brain for additional clots. They ordered me to rest, whisking Nora away to the nursery. We had decided it was better not to have Owen visit me in the hospital because it seemed cruel to drag him in just to take him away but suddenly that felt like a drastic mistake. I could not bear the thought that his last memory of me would be my running out the door, leaving him with cold tortellini and a new sitter. I called my mum for comfort, my words struggling out through the staccato drumming in my skull.

“I need to say good-bye,” I lamented into the phone. “I have to see him.”

My mother tried to calm me, telling me I would be fine, I would see Owen, I would bring Nora home, but her words were no match for the clamour inside my head. I hung up the phone, feeling hollow.

My dad and my stepmother showed up at the hospital half an hour after the “no-visitors” edict and finessed their way in for a few minutes. They sat by my bedside as I cried. My stepmother asked me if I like having my hair rubbed and when I nodded, she began to stroke it. It was oddly intimate. She had been in my life for 24 years but we were not physical that way. I closed my eyes and sank into the receiving side of motherhood, wanting it to last forever. And here we are again eight months later, once more I am afraid of death separating me from a child, but this time I would be around to feel it.

Here we are

They move Owen to the peadiatric intensive care unit. We are the only occupants, and his brightly lit room is in sharp contrast to the darkened ones around us, making it feel like we are on a movie set. They have a list of other tests they need to run, starting with a lumbar puncture. I stare at them as they start to push the needle into his spine, unable to look away as he starts to scream and moan, twisting his body away despite the fact he is unconscious and pumped full of sedatives. They sedate him even more and try again. They will not let me hold him, and without a task I cannot stay and watch so I leave the room to writhe in the hallway.

I am not even aware it has slipped into night. My father goes out to buy food and comes back with enough for 10 people, but it feels too arduous to eat.

The hospital sets me up with an electric breast pump and I sit in the empty room next door, not bothering to turn on the lights. The pump is dark green plastic and looks like it came out of A Clockwork Orange. I hook myself up and turn it on. It drones as though it is talking to me. “Shirk, shirk, whirrr. Here we are, here we are.”

When I finish pumping I walk back into Owen’s room. A technician is setting him up for an EEG. She attaches dozens of electrodes over his scalp in a torturously slow pattern – putty, electrode, tape, putty, electrode, tape until his hair disappears under a sea of wires. Next, she winds an entire roll of thick white gauze around his head making him look he is being prepped for mummification. A huge screen hangs on the wall where a television might be. His brainwaves dance across its surface in vivid green lines. They explain it is monitoring electrical activity and they are looking for unusual impulses. The technician gives us a journal and a red button that we are supposed to press when we witness an “event”, but I am not exactly clear what that means. I wonder why they trust us with some seemingly important part of his diagnosis when I cannot even figure out how to get a sandwich into my mouth.

What makes a father

I call my mum to check in on Nora. She reports that she managed to get Nora to take a little milk from a cup and she is now asleep but she will likely need a good feed soon. Nora was supposedly hysterical when my mum got to Rose’s apartment but she calmed down the second she saw her at the door, as if she knew she was back with the people she belonged to. My mum will stay with Nora over the course of the next week as I wear a groove in the pavement between the hospital and our apartment.

The doctors and nurses assure me that Owen will not wake up until the morning at the earliest so I ready myself to go. I leave my pumped milk in a refrigerator at the hospital with Owen’s name written on it in big black letters, saying they can give it to him if they want. Is breast milk not supposed to cure everything?

It is hard to be the parent who leaves, though rationally I know my presence there does not make sense since Mitch is staying. He will in fact stay with Owen almost the entire time he is in the hospital, sleeping in awkward chairs, eating meal after meal of hospital food. Mitch will hold Owen as he tries to rip the IV from his arm, vomits continuously, tears the gauze off his head, throws himself against the metal crib, screaming, stumbling, learning how to walk again.

I wish I could have shown Mitch this moment four years ago, when he was sad about not being able to genetically father a child, worried that whoever did would somehow usurp his paternal role. “This is what makes a father, there will be no question you are the one. You will always be the one.”

Almost losing a son - Heather Osterman-Davis - DO NOT USE
Heather’s family headed to a baseball game [Photo courtesy of Heather Osterman-Davis]

Food or wine

I walk across town from 2nd Avenue and 17th Street to my apartment in the West Village. It feels odd to be spit out into the cacophony of Friday night in the city after the hushed reverence of the intensive care unit. Everyone is out, drunk and happy. I walk fast, trying to shrug off the hospital, irrationally furious at the oblivious crowd blocking the sidewalk to line up outside a trendy pizza shop.

When I get home, my mum is waiting for me with food and wine. I take the wine.

Afterwards we head to bed. I pause outside Owen’s door but do not go in.

“I tried to clean it,” she says. “I didn’t know where to put all the blankets but everything else is done.”

I thank her. I do not know what I would have done if I needed to do it myself. We crawl into bed, warm in similarly coloured pajamas as if it was a slumber party. I am glad for her presence. She picks up a book and I pick up my phone, going back to the comfort of my online mum’s group. I yearn to escape into sleep but it does not come.

“What if he does not come back to me?” I ask without looking up from my phone.

“He will,” she says though I do not know if she means it or knows it is what I need to hear.

“I can’t close my eyes without seeing him, like it’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.”

“You’re a mum, that’s just how it is. It might fade, but you’ll remember every injury long after he’s forgotten them.”

“You remember mine?”

“Every one.”

Moments later Nora wakes up. Thankful for the distraction, I bring her into bed, curling her warm, hungry body into my armpit and nurse her back to sleep.

At 5am, Mitch texts me.

Owen woke up talking. Questioning the nurses about all the machines. Very groggy but here. He is back, if not out of the woods yet.

It is 2am in San Francisco but I text Chris anyway, repeating the news. He texts back.

He’s an awesome trouper and is going to beat this. Sending our guy (and you and Mitch) lots of love and strong healing vibes.

An extra-large chocolate cake

Owen will stay in the hospital for a week; will cry and rage uncontrollably for weeks, will be prescribed anti- seizure medication he might have to take for years. We get out of the hospital the night before his third birthday. Mitch takes him to buy a cake and gives in to his desire for an extra-large chocolate one. The woman behind him in line rolls her eyes as if in disbelief he is giving in so easily and he fights back the urge to say, “I would buy him the whole damn case if he wanted it.”

Mitch will sleep on the floor next to Owen’s bed for two months and I will try to learn how to open a door to his room without holding my breath. Chris will lament how far California is from New York and we will make plans for a shared holiday, saying we all really need to spend time together, thankful it will be on a beach and not around a hospital bed, or somewhere far worse.

Once when we were talking about the possibility of creating Owen, Chris said, “My take is you can never have too many people to love you. This child will have a lot of love, no matter what.”

This is the truth. I cannot remember if I envisioned having a particular type of family when I was young, but if I did, I am pretty sure this was not it. While nothing has come to me in the form that I expected, that is part of its beauty.

Source: Al Jazeera